divine curation

Bad Optics

November 8, 2020

A theme that comes up often is flight from the institution. The institution in question may be academia, or the mainstream left, or even something as nebulous as The Traditional Career, but the story is largely the same in all quarters: an increasingly stifling culture of gatekeeping, competition and/or witch-hunting is seen to have undermined the capacity of these institutional spaces to support meaningful thought, politics, or cultural praxis. Whether this stifling force is seen as a kind of sui generis social effect or, as I am more inclined to view it, as a consequence of marketisation, the response has been an increased enthusiasm for small-scale, decentralised modes of collaboration and engagement that aim to eke out new spaces outside the monoculture.

In theory I’m the kind of person who should be celebrating these developments, but in truth I find myself feeling ambivalent about almost all of it. Many attempts to forge these spaces seem to me to reproduce many of the worst elements of the thing they were supposed to be offering an alternative to. As I’ll come to later, I believe this stems from a misdiagnosis of what has gone wrong in the first place.

In these internet-savvy times, the gap produced by the corrosion of institutional space is much more about access to community than access to information. Many have understood this well, and the alternatives that have emerged typically offer, in more or less coded ways, a chance to buy access to some kind of community. There has been the evocation of secret societies and mythic friend groups, throwbacks to those famous intellectual and creative communities that were able to draw on a kind of collective vitality that seems impossible now: the Romantic poets, the surrealists, the Bloomsbury Set, Acéphale. The vision is tempting. However, what we are actually starting to see is stuff like this:

Just out of shot, below the keyboard of the Macbook screen he peers from, old Georges is drawing a multi-colored mindmap in his Moleskine notepad. Later he will give a short presentation to his accountability circle while a tight-jawed facilitator paces around the room, nodding quietly between sips of Huel.

It is very tempting to start moaning about the use of tech branding’s facile visual language to package as “content” ideas that should represent a scream of rage against exactly this kind of symbolic flatness. But this would be to miss the point. Of course it’s cringe—marketing is always cringe. But there is something else at stake here. What is clear from the marketing materials is that the real product on sale is access to people—people like you. What Murphy et al provide is a social container that you pay entry to; once inside you are both product and consumer. Whether or not you will have mastered Bataille in eight weeks (whatever that means), you can at least be sure that you will have entered the network. The “community” you gain access to is, ultimately, more akin to a premium social media network than a genuine subculture.

But what is the difference, really? In my opinion the difference is fundamental—it is the difference between a community and a strategic alliance with community aesthetics. We can make an analogy with friendship. Most would agree that a friend whose time you have to pay for is not really a friend. You may hang out together, have long conversations, give all the appearances of real connection, be completely content with the arrangement, yet there is a key difference in the social relation. A strategic alliance with friendship aesthetics is conditional on the satisfaction of an explicitly negotiated prior preference in both directions—once the contract is fulfilled there are no lingering responsibilities. The exchange of money speaks to this annulment. In a true friendship the structure of responsibility is unconditional, and cannot be contractually annulled in the same way. One can end a friendship, but to do so implies the disavowal of a previously acknowledged responsibility (which is why it is typically a big deal to do so, involving some kind of ritualistic performance. In a way, the exchange of money for services performs a ritual of this kind, a pre-emptive severance of social ties before the action context has even been entered, in effect sandboxing itThis is a thesis advanced by David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years. He argues that money—a means for tokenising debt—was originally a technology for breaking the cycle of open-ended mutual reciprocity characteristic of gift economies. This kind of makes sense when you consider how stifling, hierarchical, and socially deterministic societies organised around gift exchange could be, but also why it is utterly crazy to organise an entire society around a technology which effectively brackets the threat of lingering social ties from all exchanges.).

Members of a true community may come and go, but their presence at any moment is not conditional on their being able to extract from it some value which is tradeable as clout in other domains. The primary value created by community activities circulates within the context of production itself, rather than trading on an open market. It is value that is expended in its context of production, leaving no residue, no surplus value, no possibility of accumulation. To my mind, this is the feature that characteristically distinguishes a community from a strategic alliance. This is evident in many music subcultures, which are some of the best examples we have of cultural sites that have resisted the alienating forces of commodification.

The metal scene, for example, is constantly producing symbols and aesthetics that make sense only in their own context. Metal’s symbols are not readable according to the codes of the monoculture; its aesthetics read neither as styles nor as anti-styles. This is in stark contrast with punk, for example, whose successful assimilation into the symbolic economy is reflected in the fact that it transparently signifies as an anti-style. (Punk aesthetics can often be found on the catwalk; metal aesthetics are nowhere to be seen.) The negating potential of the “anti” is here neutralised by its transparency, since an anti-style can circulate as a commodity just well as a style can. What matters in the end is not the styles or anti-styles themselves, but that they stand to each other in relations of publicly readable difference. It is this system of transparent differential relations that metal’s symbols refuse to integrate with—in this sense, metal has inherently bad optics.

This point has been made before, but what I want to emphasise here is its connection to different shapes of social relations. It is the very fact that symbols are produced for the community in which they are produced that accounts both for why those symbols aren’t readable by the monoculture, and for why the individuals producing them can’t cash that labour in on the open marketThe point about social relations is made vividly by David Burke in his interview with the Technosocial Podcast on heavy metal. In response to the question of whether metal fetishises a kind of individualism in its a theatrical division between the performer on stage and the crowd below (in contrast with certain aspects of the techno scene, say), Burke makes the crucial point that a metal crowd is typically composed of people who are all actively involved in the scene themselves, as musicians, promoters, artists, or whatever. In this sense the accusation that metal subculture reproduces the producer/consumer structure of the mainstream it reacts to misses the point. Rather, the metal stage represents the platform on which the community performs itself to itself. In this sense it collapses rather than affirms the consumer/producer division.. As such, a true subculture will necessarily have bad optics from the point of view of a monoculture that demands transparent readibility as a criterion of symbolic value. Paradoxically, this implies that a true community will likely be less successful at signifying community than a strategic alliance whose energies are directed into producing community aesthetics.

What does this have to do with mastering Bataille in eight weeks? The suggestion I want to make is that the distinction between community and strategic alliance is just the difference between a group who builds and maintains their own shared container, and a group that buys into a ready made one. If you simply buy into a container, it is impossible to stand in any relation other than strategic alliance to those you encounter within it. This is, ultimately, because there is really no meaningful distinction between a community and its container. The process of symbolic production in the music scenes I’ve described just is the process of container building, the shaping of customs, habits, and rituals that symbolise and constitute the particular structure of the subculture. That this results in bad optics—which is to say, in untradeable symbols—is for the same banal reason that a piece of furniture custom built for the contours of a specific room has no value on the open market. In the case of the ready made community container, the abstract symbol of the community precedes its concrete actualisation. In this respect its status as a tradeable symbol is established as a prior given. By purchasing it what one is doing in effect is ratifying its public exchange-value. Those one meets within it can only be encountered, in the first instance, as fellow investors.

This brings me (finally) to what it is that leaves me with such a sense of flatness encountering these supposedly liberating alternatives to the failing traditional institutions. It is precisely this feature—the setting up of a space of praxis (intellectual, cultural, etc) in such a way that its exchange-value qua symbol precedes its use-value qua community—that captures what has gone wrong with traditional institutions in first place. As such these “alternatives” are no alternatives at all—they conform to the very same market protocols that have been responsible for undermining those institutions. It is when a degree (for example) becomes a symbol to be purchased for its significations that the incentives structuring it are fundamentally changed. When one buys access to an exclusive group in a symbolic economy in which the appearance of exclusivity trades high, nothing has changed. Everything is a self-marketing service in disguise—having the option of using decentralised self-marketing services is hardly an intellectual or creative liberation. Rather than negating the existing order, these alternatives affirm it through a controlled inversion, because what is characteristic of the existing order is that it encourages inversions, just so long as they are controlled.

Addendum: A Hegelian Generalisation

There’s a criticism of Žižek that Steven Shaviro once made on his blog, which I first encountered in a Xenogothic post touching on issues similar to those discussed here. The general complaint is that it has become such standard Žižek procedure to argue for the exact opposite of whatever liberal consensus thinks, that he risks becoming wholly parasitic upon the thing he claims to be critiquing, thus undermining the force of his critique.

Zizek, unlike the free-market economists and evolutionary theorists, justifies his contrarianism in Hegelian terms; he’s performing the negation of the negation, or something like that. But this is exactly Deleuze’s Nietzschean point, that a critique grounded in negation is an utterly impoverished and reactive one.

Now, while I think Shaviro’s is quite a good response to Žižek in particular, it seems to me that it is not a response to “critique grounded in negation” in general. Indeed, the point Shaviro is making could be interpreted (contra Deleuze) in a Hegelian pitch: that Žižek’s critique fails not because it is grounded in negation, but because it is grounded in formal rather determinate negation.

Let me clarify. The formal negation of “square” is “not square”. A formal negation contains no positive content—it is the pure logical inverse of a concept. As such the formal negation of a formal negation ends up back where it started. If Žižek’s critique provides nothing more than a formal negation of liberal consensus—existing as a kind of performative contrarianism which pops up only to invert it—it adds nothing, and can ground no concrete conceptual change. If the negation of the negation is to speak to a dialectical movement, then the negation in question must be determinate.

For example, “square” stands in a relation of determinate negation to “circle”. Unlike a formal negation, a determinate negation represents a true incompatability. Green is not square, but a thing can be both green and square—they are compatibly different properties. But a thing cannot be both square and circular—these properties are exclusively different. Formal and determinate negation thus correspond to two kinds of difference: to compatible and exclusive difference, respectively (Brandom, 2019, p. 56). Put in these Hegelian terms, then, what Badiou has called the crisis of the negative—an inability of the left to effectively negate the existing order—can be seen as produced by a reduction of determinate negation to formal negation, or of all exclusive difference to compatible difference, as demonstrated in Žižek’s paint-by-numbers contrarianismI’m actually not sure this an entirely fair characterisation. I have this recurring experience with Žižek where I’ll see him talking about something, nod my head along and find it enjoyable, then move on to something else. After someone else has convinced me of a point which I find profound, I’ll go back to find that this is exactly what Žižek had been saying all along. Somehow the force was getting lost in transmission. Taken on his own terms, I think Žižek’s thought probably offers a perfectly determinate negation of liberal consensus. The reduction to formal negation is something that seems to happen in the space between, a structural operation of the media in which Žižek performs his theorising. This is, I think, a manifestation of Baudrillard’s claim that it is always the code that speaks. The medium is the message, and the message is that all differences must be formalised according to pre-existing conceptual schemes. But this implies that the scheme itself can never change..

In the terms I have been using, a controlled inversion of the existing order is one that negates it formally, but not determinately, and which therefore fails to stand in meaningful dialectical tension with it. As a transparent anti-style, punk formally negates mainstream styles without determinately negating them. In this sense, punk as a symbol is compatibly but not exclusively different to its competitors, which allows it to exchange with them as equivalents in the symbolic economy. The assimilation of punk into the monoculture as a transparent symbol therefore represents its neutralisation as a radical alternative to it. As Shaviro writes,

[F]or today’s neoliberal capitalism, it is much more effective to turn something into a commodity than to ban it or censor it or otherwise repress it. Anything can be commodified, and by that fact alone what has thus been packaged and offered for sale is deprived of any radical efficacy, any potential for real change.

This process which undermines radical efficacy was thematised by Baudrillard as the assimilation of the symbolic into the semiotic, or semiological reduction (Baudrillard, 2019, p. 88). The symbol (in Baudrillard’s strict sense) derives its significance from the particular Real it indexes. Essentially tied to particularity, a symbol cannot circulate as a commodity (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 50). (For the same reason you cannot wear someone else’s wedding ring.) Commodification of the symbol is what turns it into a sign, detaching it from its concrete context of signification and assimilating it into a system of semiotic exchange. In the semiotic order the significance of a sign is exhausted by its differential relations to other signs, establishing something like an exchange rate. The true symbol is able to determinately negate an existing order because its significance is pinned to something outside that order; the commodified sign, however, can only negate formally, and it is through (not in spite of) its formal negations that it takes up its position within the closed system of signs, trading against each other but never against the Real. The reduction of symbols to signs is therefore the collapse of determinate into formal negation, and the cessation of all dialectical motion. In this way, the crisis of the negative can be seen as a consequence of the restructuring of the symbolic economy around market codes that require signs to stand in relations of transparent, readable difference to each otherIn the wake of Occupy Wall Street there was some analysis that argued that Occupy succeeded for as long as it provided a floating.

True subcultures produce symbols that violate these codes. This violation manifests not as any kind of explicit hostility to the dominant symbols of the monoculture, but rather as bad optics: unreadable according public codes, these symbols seem neither based nor cringe, neither woke nor problematic—somehow both at the same time. This is what we should expect determinate negation to look like: weird, implacable, vital, and probably a bit tacky. The capacity of such subcultures to do this is, I hold, tied to the way that their social relations are unconditionally structured. Strategic alliances can produce no more than flat symbols, detached aesthetics of community that will always find a value within the symbolic economy precisely because they negate only formally.


  1. Baudrillard, J. (2019). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (C. Levin, Tran.). Verso.
  2. Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death (I. H. Grant, Tran.). Sage Publications.
  3. Brandom, R. (2019). A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Harvard University Press.
Bad Optics - November 8, 2020 - Divine Curation